What if…?

“Can we do more research and work on our boards now?” asks any student in the class at 8:01 each morning. The enthusiasm to jump into their independent learning projects is unmistakeable.

The central idea of our new unit is:

Life on Earth is dependent on how the Solar System works.

 

Step One: Immersion…We assume…

We decided to begin the unit with an immersion. Immerse the students with information about the Solar System so they could quickly reach a point of being able to ask relevant questions. Instead of the teachers leading the immersion, we wanted the students to lead it. Thanks to Ewan McIntosh for the inspiration.

We started with a 4 minute Brainpop movie about the Solar System and then we told the students: 

  1. We assume you know a lot already about the Solar System.
  2. We assume you can learn quickly.
  3. We assume you can share your knowledge. 
  4. Choose a planet/sun/moon to research and share your knowledge on a board (called the ‘Project Nest’).

Go!

The teacher-led introduction took less than 10 minutes. The students were pumped! We acknowledged their ability to be self-motivated, interested and independent learners and they took up the challenge.

We guided their research by supplying books, pre-viewed videos and Internet sites (the teachers created folders full of appropriate resources on the class laptops).

The Project Nests (class pin boards and white boards) started filling up quickly, knowledge and questions were being passed around from group to group. The class begin a true ‘nest’ of shared learning.

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Step Two: What If…? Provocations

Our plan was to introduce some provocations as the unit progressed. We planned to ask some “What if…?” questions. The students preempted us and inherently started asking these questions to each other. We should have known!

e.g.

“What if the sun exploded?”

“What if there was water on Mars?”

“What if didn’t have a moon?”

“What if we could walk on Saturn?”

“What if our day was 243 Earth days long, like it is on Venus?”

They had begun their own significant inquiries. The student experts (those that researched particular aspects of the Solar System) supply the facts and drive the discussions forward. Concepts and misconceptions are being challenged. Informed questions are being asked. The students are collaborating and connecting with each other to extend their learning.

My job? Listen to the discussions, ask different provocative questions, and point students in the direction of resources that will help answer their questions. 

“…inquiry is a collaborative process of connecting to and reaching beyond current understanding to explore tensions significant to learners.” – Kathy Short, in Taking the PYP Forward

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What We Already Know

Play is the answer to how anything new comes about. – Jean Piaget

Where do we get our ideas? Jonathan Drori (TED Talk “What We Think We Know“) says:

Children get their ideas not from teachers, as teachers often think, but actually from common sense, from experience of the world around them, from all the things that go on between them and their peers, and their carers, and their parents, and all of that. Experience.

Our Grade 3 students are inquiring into forces. As they experiment with inclined planes and friction, gravity and inertia, pushes and pulls, I realize that the students already inherently ‘know’ all about Newton’s 3 Laws of Motion because, for the last 9 years of their lives, they have being playing with cars, balls, buckets of water, and engaging in running games with each other.

We don’t need to teach them these laws.   They are already applying and proving these laws daily. They are experts. So, what is it that we want to get into the students’ heads about the laws of motion? I am not a physics teacher. I am learning with the students as we experiment and play with the laws. So, I need to be careful what I plan to ‘get into their heads.’

Drori warns us, paraphrased from Cardinal Wolsey,:

Be very careful what you get into people’s heads because it’s virtually impossible to shift it afterwards.

Maybe we don’t need to teach them. Maybe we can, instead,  provide them the opportunity to consider what they already know and provoke them with the question:

What cool things can you do using Newton’s Laws of Motion?

Show me.

And let them fly.

May 2013 update: During Grade 3 unit on forces we introduced Rube Goldberg machines to the students. My colleague, John Rinker, blogged about the success of allowing kids to create ‘cool things’ like Rube Goldberg machines here.

Provocative Questions or boring teacher questions?

The other day our PYP programme coordinator, Derek Pinchbeck, shared, what I perceived as a revolutionary new idea (sparked by Lynn Erikson) : why not turn our teacher questions into provocative questions. It’s one of those things that you just want to slap your head and say, “Of course! How could we not have done that before? It’s so obvious.”

For example, if the line of inquiry is: Making personal choices about our health. Here is what I would have done in the past:

Teacher question: What choices do we have? (Boring.  Ask a child this and you will get a list: eat healthy food, exercise, sleep, etc.)

Here is an example of what we might do now:

Teacher question: Do healthy choices differ between cultures? (Ask a child this and you will get questions, comparisons, thoughtful thinking, and debates)

Don’t you feel more engaged  emotionally by the second question? Don’t you want to start talking about it immediately, asking questions and sharing personal experience and beliefs? I do.

Read more here: Derek’s blog.